India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was also a great writer.
Sir Walter Crocker, Australian diplomat, writer and author of Nehru’s biography Nehru: A Contemporary’s Estimate, the foreword to which was written by the great historian Sir Arnold Toynbee, said in its preface that had Nehru not been well known as India’s first prime minister, he would have been famous for his autobiography.
There was, however more to Nehru as a writer than his autobiography. No other world leader, with the possible exception of Winston Churchill, can lay claim to a literary output as prolific and timeless as that of Nehru. His other works, namely, Glimpses of World History and The Discovery of India, not to mention that jewel in miniature, his Letters From A Father To His Daughter, are famous in their own right.
Nehru was also an accomplished letter writer. What began as a matter of routine necessity in his years at Harrow and Cambridge to convey the progress of his academic life to his father, later became a consuming passion. Nehru penned thousands of letters in his lifetime, addressed to his father Motilal Nehru, his mentor Mahatma Gandhi, to his loving daughter Indira and to his colleagues in the Congress party. He also exchanged letters with eminent men of letters, scientists and world leaders, notably with Bertrand Russell, George Bernard Shaw, Albert Einstein, Harold Laski, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Marshall Tito and others.
Nehru’s command over the English language was near perfect. Passages from his books are often quoted as examples of finest writings for their style and simplicity. The American journalist John Gunther, who visited India in 1938, lavished ample praise on Nehru’s Autobiography for its “superlative prose” and said that “hardly a dozen men alive write English as well as Nehru”.
Nehru can be certainly ranked equal to Bernard Shaw, George Orwell, Bertrand Russell and Winston Churchill as a master of the English prose. The TIME magazine for its millennium edition brought out at the end of 1999 narrowed the list of finest writers of English to just two and chose Nehru and Bertrand Russell as foremost writers of the twentieth century.
One is awed at the prodigious amount of written material Nehru produced in his lifetime considering his busy schedule before and after the independence of India. Apart from the books mentioned above, the Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru (SWJN) which contains his letters, speeches, and interviews, official notes and articles, make up a formidable publication running into hundred volumes. With each volume comprising on average 700 pages, the SWJN make up for an unbelievable 70000 pages of reading matter!
There is nothing ordinary or ephemeral about what Nehru writes or speaks. According to Professor and historian Madhavan Palat, under whose editorship the SWJN project came to a successful completion with the release of its hundredth and final volume on Nehru’s birth anniversary on 14 November 2019, the SWJN not only documents Nehru’s life and his ideas but also along with the Collected Works Of Mahatma Gandhi, is often the starting point for understanding of the making of modern India.
Nehru’s books reveal the thinker, philosopher and a historian in him. He writes about his own life and the life and history of his country and its people. His view of history, though is not nationalistic. He advocates a composite world view of history in his Glimpses of World History. He believes history should be taught and understood as the story of human civilization as it developed in various parts of the world.
My favorite Nehru is, of course, An Autobiography, also known as Toward Freedom, the first three pages of which were part of our Hindi textbook in the fifth standard under the title Meri Kahani.
The book was written while Nehru was in prison between June 1934 and February 1935. It has been through more than a dozen editions since it was first published in 1936 and translated in thirty languages. It is a soul-searching dispassionate look by the author at his own identity.
Nehru is unsparing to himself. He writes; “I have become a queer mixture of the East and the West, out of place everywhere, at home nowhere.” Also; “I am a stranger in the West. I cannot be of it. But in my own country also, sometimes I have an exile’s feeling.’’
Nehru’s Glimpses of World History, published in 1934 is a collection of 196 letters written from various prisons in British India between 1930 & 1933 to Indira to introduce her to world history. These letters, written without recourse to reference books or a library, but his personal notes present a panoramic view of human history from 6000 B.C. to the time of writing the book.
Nehru acknowledged in his preface that The Outline of History by H.G. Wells was a major influence on the work. The New York Times described it as “one of the most remarkable books ever written… Nehru makes even H.G. Wells seem singularly insular…. one is awed by the breadth of Nehru’s culture”.
Nehru’s The Discovery of India, written during his imprisonment at Ahmednagar fort (1942-1946) is an honourpaid to the rich cultural heritage of India, its history and its philosophy as seen through the eyes of a patriot fighting for the independence of his country. Nehru’s love for his country, though is not blind love. He can be critical of her too: “A country under foreign domination”, he writes, “seeks escape from the present in dreams of a vanished age and finds solace consolation in visions of past greatness”.
The book was also immortalized by the legendary film director Shyam Benegal when he adapted it for the 53 episode TV seriesBharat Ek Khoj which was aired on the DD channel in 1988.
Nehru’s letters reveal the human side of his personality. In these, he comes out as a loving father, a restless freedom fighter and a true and sincere friend. Nehru chose to publish two sets of his letters separately.
The first set brought out as Letters From A Father To His Daughter in 1929 is a collection of 30 letters written to his daughter Indira in the summer of 1928 from the Naini prison near Allahabad to make up for his absence from home. Appropriately, as these letters are for the ten-years old Indira, he writes with a child’s curiosity about natural and human history. He wants her to develop a scientific temper.
The other set of letters published separately as A Bunch Of Old Letters is a collection of 368 letters Nehru exchanged with his colleagues in the Congress party, including Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Patel and Subhash Chandra Bose.
It is remarkable, says Sunil Khilnani in the introduction to the 2005 edition of the book as to how many letters Nehru included in the book that are sharply critical of him, often in a very personal way and how he selected just 38 letters written by him. Khilnani also points out that the letters are a testament of how the national movement was a constant, many stranded conversation-sometimes heated and piqued.
He also mentions how Nehru disagreed with Bose’s view of Nazi and Fascist regimes and warned Bose of false leftist slogans turning to fascist ideology. Nehru also warned Sardar Patel about the dangers of the ultra-right ideology and rise of communal forces. He proved to be right on both counts.
Nehru died 56 years ago this day, but his writings would live on and continue to guide us in our quest for a better future for our country and as he himself would say in pursuit of the still larger good of humanity.